“The Novel in the Age of Contemporaneity” by Mathias Nilges

In How to Read a Moment: The American Novel and the Crisis of the Present (Northwestern University Press; March 2021), Mathias Nilges shows that time is inseparable from the stories we tell about it, demonstrating that the contemporary American novel offers new ways to make sense of the temporality that governs our present. The novel emerged as the art form of a rapidly changing modern world, a way of telling time in its progress. In this post, Nilges gives readers a look at how he formed his argument that this historical mission is renewed today through works that understand contemporaneity as a form of time shaping that props up our material world and cultural imagination.

In a special contribution to Wired magazine, actor Will Ferrell asks, “Where’s the future?” We were promised food in pill form and flying cars, Ferrell notes. The state of our present, however, leaves him wondering what went wrong and why the future we were promised never arrived. Ferrell’s humorous engagement with the current state of the future points toward a serious problem that greatly concerns gurus of venture capitalism such as Peter Thiel, who observes with some dismay that the future and its associated imagination, and with it the basis for venture capitalism, seem to have disappeared. In his essay “The End of the Future,” Thiel argues that our era is defined by a profound change, one that marks in his mind the end of progress and innovation. Our historical moment is witnessing the end of the future and the rise of presentism. At best, Thiel argues, we are offered a pseudofuture, one without futurity, a “strange future where today’s trends simply continue.” Thiel’s essay offers a sweeping indictment of our present. We live “in a world where little grows or improves with time,” he writes, and we have decidedly moved beyond those eras “when people still had concrete ideas about the future.” The core of Thiel’s essay and frustration with the current crisis of futurity is quite clearly motivated by his concern for the operations of venture and finance capitalism and a mournful longing for those future imaginaries that propped up some of the basic operations of capitalism, but he also suggests that the disruption of the future results not only in capitalist crises but also in political and cultural ones. “Voters today prefer Victorian houses,” he laments, a point underscored by the recent political shift in the United States and a growing number of other countries toward right-wing nostalgia and a politics that further amplifies the crisis of futurity by promising not better futures but instead the return to a romanticized past.

In literature, too, we are able to see the consequences of the crisis of futurity, Thiel proposes, subsequently declaring with great pathos and little evidence that “science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre.” The strikingly common impression that we have lost the ability to imagine the future, Nathan Silverman argues in in The Baffler, is poignantly expressed through the posts of @Shitty_Future, a Twitter account that has been gathering evidence for the future’s crash. As this Twitter feed shows, our present is defined by shitty futures, Silverman argues, by a time when “the future is most decidedly now.” Instead of exciting futures, we only have futures that, Silverman argues, are ultimately “letdowns.” Limited to the choice between shitty futures brought about by climate change and versions of the future that are reserved for oligarchs and the super-rich, Silverman reasons, we all must surely conclude that “the future is irrelevant, over and retailed, entirely kaput.” Faced with the failure of the future, Silverman concludes, we are left with only one option: we must abandon the future “and start figuring out how we might survive the present.”

All we have, Thiel and a wide range of commentators would have us believe, is now. The future has ended, and we are witnessing the rise and absolute expansion of the present. And as it turns out, faced with this development, even futurists are deciding that it may be best to change professions. In their editors’ note to the “Futurist Forum,” a series of articles “by some of the world’s leading futurists,” CO.EXIST editors argue that because established conceptions of time and futurity are “no longer operable in a digital age when everything—emails, tweets, TV shows, finance— happens instantly,” former futurists are now becoming self-described “presentists.” One of these (former) futurists, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, suggests in his book Present Shock that “if the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.”

Historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi, authors of The History Manifesto, likewise propose that current public debate is centrally defined by short-termism. In our moment, which is often associated with a flattened world in which we all live in a global village, they argue, “time has been compressed.” “Timespans ranging from a few months to a few years determine most formal planning and decision-making—by corporations, governments, non-governmental organisations and international bodies,” Armitage and Guldi write, adding that “quarterly reporting by companies,” “electoral cycles,” and “planning horizons of one to five years” have become the “usual temporal boundaries of our hot, crowded, and flattened little world.” This short-termism, they show, has been spreading since the 1980s, and as a result the future has collapsed into an ever-expanding, self-renewing present.

This broadening of the present in turn generates significant problems for art and culture, as we are able to see in critical debates that focus on the current state of contemporary art. Contemporary art seems like an innocuous term that refers quite simply to art produced today. And yet recent discussions of the term by art historians and critics indicate clearly that it is no longer as historically and temporally bland as it once was. Although we are currently witnessing increasing interest in the category of the contemporary in literary studies, art criticism has been grappling with the term for well over a decade now. And if the by now robust discourse on the question of contemporary art and the concept of the contemporary in art criticism is any indicator of discussions to come in literary criticism, then we may be looking ahead to unhappy times.

But why exactly does the term seem to enrage art critics, and should literary critics be similarly impatient with the term contemporary literature? Critic, art historian, and chief curator of the 2018 Shanghai Biennale Cuauhtémoc Medina argues that we are confronted with a “pandemic of contemporariness” in contemporary art. Simply put, there is more contemporaneity in contemporary art than ever before, and that is not a good thing. Medina understands art’s excessive contemporaneity, or what he calls the “frenzy of ‘the contemporary’ in contemporary art,” as a symptom of art’s immediate attachment to the logic of our moment, to the absolute presentism of a world that art is unable to critique and that it instead merely reproduces. In this sense, Medina argues, art has become truly contemporary: the signature of art’s contemporaneity is “the fact that art fairs, biennales, symposia, magazines, and new blockbuster shows and museums constitute evidence of art’s absorption into that which is merely present—not better, not worse, not hopeful, but a perverted instance of the given.” The problem with contemporary art, in other words, is not that the term is fairly banal and simply describes the art of today. The problem is much more substantial. The contemporaneity of contemporary art is symptomatic of a historically specific phenomenon in art, and it designates a moment when art can only register the given and has lost its ability to imagine that which may lie beyond the present. It is for this reason that Medina expresses his account of the damaging dominance of the contemporary in art via a particular variation of the term: contemp(t)orary. The term contemporary art becomes contemptible as soon as it functions as more than a mere placeholder for more rigorous critical concepts, as soon as it begins to describe a historically specific problem in the relation between art and contemporaneity.

In the late aughts, the editors of the journal October sent a questionnaire on “the Contemporary” to “approximately seventy critics and curators.” The effort resulted in a 120-page document, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” which was published in the fall of 2009. “The category of ‘contemporary art’ is not a new one,” writes Hal Foster on behalf of the editors in the introduction to the document. But what the responses to the questionnaire show, and “what is new,” he continues, is that “‘contemporary art’ has become an institutional object in its own right.” In her examination of the relation between contemporaneity and contemporary art, Juliane Rebentisch comes to the same conclusion and suggests that “it might sound somewhat tautological, but contemporary art is experiencing a boom.” “The contemporaneity of contemporary art,” however, is for Rebentisch “nothing but the nightmare of an eternal now.” The contemporaneity of contemporary art mirrors a larger historical problem insofar as the “fixation on the now in art is . . . the exact correlate of a time imprisoned by immanence.” And contemporary art thus conceived, Rebentisch senses, appears to be connected to the general association of our moment with a movement beyond historicism and historical time: “This description of the current state of things corresponds to the diffuse feeling that the present is no longer defined by the directional vector of historical development; instead, it gently spreads out in a peculiar way so that it becomes ‘broader,’ as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht formulates it. For Gumbrecht, the broad present marks nothing less than the end of the chronotope of ‘historical time’ itself.” Art criticism diagnoses our moment as being plagued by the collapse of the future into the long now, a development that not only can be studied in contemporary art but that indeed transforms the term contemporary art itself into a poignant index of art’s inability to imagine anything but contemporaneity.

Modern times, I show in How to Read a Moment, became understandable to us in part through the work of the novel. The novel emerges historically as an art form that tries to make sense of a moment when virtually every aspect of the world is subject to rapid and profound change. In contradistinction to the epic, for instance, which has been described as the narrative of a world that was imagined as completed and therefore timeless, the novel’s importance lies in part in its ability to address itself to the ever-changing present of modernity, which it seeks to narrativize and thereby make accessible to thought. But given the novel’s foundational connection to the very sense of time whose death it now narrates, does the fact that a wide range of novels grapple with the end of temporal development mean that the novel inevitably narrates its own death? And what happens to the contemporary novel, and what does it mean to speak of the contemporary novel, when there is too much contemporaneity? As the flow of the present stops, and the infamous problem of the vanishing present is replaced by that of a static, inescapable, and seemingly absolute now without future, we must wonder: Does the term contemporary novel finally designate a specific moment in time for the novel, the moment when contemporaneity becomes the novel’s defining aesthetic problem as well as its ultimate point of exhaustion?

Far from it.

“The novel emerges historically as an art form that tries to make sense of a moment when virtually every aspect of the world is subject to rapid and profound change.”

How to Read a Moment explores the function and indeed the importance of the novel in this situation of severe crisis. It forwards an account not only of the causes of the crisis of futurity that purportedly defines our present but also of the ways we may historicize and ultimately move beyond the limits and impasses that commentators associate with our era of full contemporaneity. Time has, of course, not ended, and the crisis described by commentators is entirely fictional. And yet crises that are more fiction than fact can nevertheless create all-too-real consequences. In How to Read a Moment I explore how exactly a fictional crisis can give rise to quite concrete, material consequences. And since we are confronted with a particularly fascinating fictional crisis—for time is itself a matter of a delicate relation between fiction and fact, between the real world and the realm of ideas—I propose that we can learn much about the origins and consequences of this crisis by examining how literary fiction has engaged with the purported crisis of time over the past few decades.

In particular, the “contemporary” novel addresses contemporaneity as a problem that is as much historical as it is aesthetic, as much a matter of the ways in which particular forms of time shape and prop up our material world as it is about changing forms of our temporal imagination, offering counternarratives of our present that show why the ubiquity of the crisis of temporality is to be treated as one of the most pressing problems of our current political and cultural imagination. Moreover, How to Read a Moment suggests that we may understand the rise of real-time capitalism as one central source of this crisis of temporality and, by showing that the material consequences and contradictions of the transition into real-time capitalism are bound up with significant changes in time as a form of imagination and narrative, that the novel is able to respond to this crisis by returning to its strengths as an art form. The novel emerged as an art form under conditions similar to those we face today: in the context of a historical crisis in the fiction of time and during the emergence of a new temporal regime (a new way of conceiving of temporality, contemporaneity, and “presence”). And just as it did at the moment of its rise, the novel today provides us with new, alternative ways of understanding the temporality of a changed historical moment, thus transcending what is elsewhere simply understood as a limiting crisis.

The end of the future is connected to a crisis of established forms of telling time, which is in turn bound up with a crisis of knowing, of making sense of our relation to the world and to our moment in history. But far from presenting us with the actual end of futurity or of time itself, the currently prevalent belief that the future may have ended should be understood as a problem of knowledge, as a crisis of our imagination that is directly bound up with a transition in material reality. It is true, our established ways of imagining time no longer make sense in a world that is aimed at immediacy and in which concepts such as “real time” describe not only instantaneity but also time’s full abstraction. No traditional metaphor, analogy, or narrative corresponds to the units of time that define the speed and instantaneity of our present. And it is also true that this creates a big problem for thought and culture alike. After all, thinking and knowing time requires narrative. Time is inseparable from the stories we tell about it and through it. But precisely because “telling time” means that we know time through the stories we tell about it and that time itself is a narrative about the world and our relationship to it, the current crisis of temporality does not signal the end of time or futurity. Instead, it is bound up with the exhaustion of a particular set of temporal narratives.

What has exhausted itself is not the future itself. Rather, we are witnessing a large-scale shift in material reality that throws into crisis those narratives and forms of knowledge that stabilized and made thinkable prior modes of existence. Such exhaustions of our temporal imaginary have often accompanied moments of significant historical transformation. Yet, although they are by no means new or unique, crises in established ways of imagining and telling time bring with them significant cultural and sociopolitical upheavals. After all, what we are losing, as we have already begun to see in the examples above, is not just a set of ideas about time, a few stories about the future, or a particular orientation toward the world that is helpful for venture capitalism. More significantly, we are losing one of the fundamental ways of understanding our relation to material reality, a complex understanding of time joining the material world to the world of ideas that firmly established itself in our cultural and sociopolitical imagination as a historically specific constellation of connected forms of telling stories about and thus making sense of our world.

What is helpful in such a moment, and has helped us navigate such crises productively in the past, is a turn toward literature in general and the novel in particular, toward those art forms that are quintessentially defined by their commitment to interrogating, delimiting, and innovating our narratives of time as a historically changing form of thought. How to Read a Moment illustrates the novel’s crucially important contribution to our ability to grapple with the temporal crises of our time by developing ways to examine the current problem of contemporaneity historically: as a matter of the exhaustion of a temporal regime that calls for new ways of reading the present and telling the time of our moment. Today, as during the time of its rise, the novel seeks to give us ways of knowing and speaking to the new forms of time that govern our lives. By telling the time of contemporaneity in strikingly new ways, the novel recovers a sense of possibility and hope in the midst of the ruins of the future while also forwarding a dazzling argument for its own survival and importance in the present.

MATHIAS NILGES is a professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University. He is the author of Right-Wing Culture in Contemporary Capitalism: Regression and Hope in a Time Without Future.

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